This week's Champions League encounters saw ten teams book their places in the round of sixteen. The last-but-one match day of the first phase was marked by a four-goal salvo from AC Milan's Andriy Shevchenko and a fifth consecutive victory for Arsenal, the only team still with a 100% record.
Bayern Munich and Juventus (Group A), Arsenal and Ajax Amsterdam (Group B), Barcelona (Group C), Lyon and Real Madrid (Group F), Liverpool and Chelsea (Group G) and Inter Milan (Group H) have once again fulfilled their fans' expectations.
But several other big names will have to wait until the final game for their fate to be decided. This is the case for two former winners of the competition in Group D, Manchester United and Benfica, who currently occupy the bottom two places in the section, and also Porto, winners in 2004 but currently propping up Group H.
Less than a week after the incidents in Istanbul after the Turkey-Switzerland qualifying match, the match between Fenerbahce and AC Milan passed off in an excellent atmosphere. A combination of icy rain and a red-hot Andriy Shevchenko soon doused the enthusiasm of the Turkish supporters.
The Ukrainian, who had "carefully analysed the Fenerbahçe defence and knew how to beat it," according to his coach Carlo Ancelotti, entered into the Rossonero club's history by equalling the feat of Marco Van Basten, scorer of a quadruple against Gothenburg in 1992. After Van Basten, the Italian Simone Inzaghi, the Croat Dado Prso and the Dutchman Ruud Van Nistelrooy, "Sheva" becomes only the fifth player to hit four in a Champions League tie. What is more, he was only a whisker away from becoming the first player to score five times in one CL game.
Ronaldinho and Shevchenko in a long-distance duel
With the end-of-year awards a matter of days away, Shevchenko seems to be slugging it out with Barcelona's Ronaldinho. In irresistible form at the moment, the Brazilian is the current FIFA World Player of the Year, while "Sheva" holds the European Player of the Year award.
The genial Shevchenko's four-goal feat should not be allowed to completely overshadow the fine hat-trick bagged in the same group by Schalke 04's Georgian striker Levan Kobiashvili against PSV Eindhoven (3-0). That result has set things up nicely for the final match day, when Milan and Schalke lock horns at the San Siro in a match that is still vital for both club's qualification, as PSV, who lie only a point behind them, play host to the eliminated Fenerbahce on the same night. The game in Italy certainly promises to be a fascinating duel between two in-form East European strikers.
Another Champions League hat-trick signalled the return to form of the Auriverde's Adriano against Artmedia Bratislava (4-0). Adriano's treble not only fired Inter into the next round, it also doubled the Brazilian's Champions League tally.
Ten teams have already qualified then, but the final group positions are far from set in stone. The battles for first place will be hard-fought, as the group winners know they should avoid many of the top teams in the round of 16 and will also benefit from playing the second leg on home turf.
With this in mind, both Juventus, narrow victors over the Belgians of Bruges (1-0) thanks to an Alessandro del Piero penalty, and Bayern Munich, fresh from flexing their muscles against Rapid Vienna (4-0), will be vying for top spot in Group A far from their home strongholds. When they play in Vienna and Bruges respectively, Fabio Capello's charges will need to score at least one goal more than the Bavarians to pinch first place.
In Group B, a Robert Pires penalty two minutes from time secured Arsenal a fifth consecutive win at FC Thun (1-0). When they welcome fellow qualifiers Ajax Amsterdam, the Gunners will be looking to boost their confidence still further by making it a 100% perfect first round campaign. For a side still seeking Champions League success, the importance of the feel-good factor cannot be overestimated.
Behind the imperious Barcelona (3-1 winners over Werder Bremen) and their inimitable ringmaster Ronaldinho (one goal and two assists), Serse Cosmi's Udinese pulled off the performance of the evening in Group C. The Italians prevailed in Greece over Panathinaikos (2-1), courtesy of two goals in the last nine minutes, including a wonder strike from Vincent Candela in the dying seconds.
In what is their first appearance in Europe's premier club competition, Udinese now only need to take a point from their final home game to progress. But unfortunately, their opponents on the night will be Barcelona! If they lose, it will work in favour of Werder Bremen, who play host to Panathinaikos and have the better head-to-head record against the Italians.
Group D still wide open
In Group D, conversely, there are still a plethora of possible scenarios. With all of the teams placing the accent on not conceding, just eight goals have been scored in 10 matches, whereas the other groups are averaging around the thirty mark. Manchester United in particular are misfiring, finding the back of the net just twice in five games. Consequently, the Mancunians go into their final group game at Benfica in a tricky situation (3rd). Two points separate the four teams (Villareal Lille, United and Benfica), so any kind of victory will prove decisive on 7th December.
Left dazed and confused by the passage of the Catalan hurricane at the weekend, Real Madrid had a chance to get back on track against Lyon, the unbeaten leaders of Group F. But once again, the galacticos were denied the chance to sparkle. The absence of Ronaldo and Raul and the second-half exits of Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham led to them relinquishing their narrow lead late on. This time, it was the Norwegian John Carew who delivered the decisive blow (1-1), with a craftily executed back-heel that secured first place in the group for the French champions.
In Group G, the two English sides both did what they had to do to rubber-stamp their qualification. Chelsea put in a purposeful performance in Anderlecht, inflicting a record twelfth consecutive Champions League defeat (2-0) upon the hapless Belgians. Meanwhile, in Liverpool, the European champions had to make do with a goalless draw against Real Betis. On 6 December, all English eyes will be on Stamford Bridge for the crunch game between the Reds and the Blues to determine the winners of the group.
Behind Inter in Group H, Rangers did well to earn a draw in Porto (1-1) and will now be masters of their own destiny when they welcome the Italians to Glasgow. A win for the Scots would see them qualify, but any other result could play into the hands of either Artmedia Bratislava or Porto, who face each other in Slovakia.